Alphabet Soup

Language and how we use it.
May 20 1998 3:30 AM

Alphabet Soup

A technological history of reading and writing.

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It is beyond me to chart the future byways of the digital revolution, but I'll venture one counterintuitive prediction: Electronic media will usher in a resurgence in the quality and value in handwriting. Signs of a renaissance of the handwritten word are here and there discernible. Most obviously, there is the proliferation of specialty shops for fountain pens and handmade paper. But it can also be seen, hauntingly, in the almost sacral reception given to Ronald Reagan's handwritten letter revealing his affliction with Alzheimer's disease. "Script's primary power," wrote Edmund Morris, Reagan's biographer, in a 1995 reflection on the letter, "is to convey the cursive flow of human thought, from brain to hand to pen to ink to eye--every waver, every loop, every character trembling with expression."

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As handwriting becomes ever less a daily utilitarian workhorse it may well become ever more a cherished means of interpersonal transmission--for the sorts of messages that one sets aside to preserve (or pulls out to reread from one's intermammary sulcus). Some future Paul Saenger, perhaps in a book to be called When Hands Left the Keyboard, will, I hope, be able to tell the story of one more happy accident.

Cullen Murphy is managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly, where his essays appear frequently. He also writes the comic strip Prince Valiant.